LAND O'LAKES — A cooler sat nearly empty, save for a few packs of cheese slices. The walls were mostly bare. Customers pushed rickety shopping carts around $5 clearance racks.
"I had to get a last look," one woman shouted to a man who was rounding up the carts in the parking lot of thinning asphalt.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Walmart, an institution for more than 20 years in Land O'Lakes and an anchor in the Village Lakes shopping center, was set to close forever.
About a mile away, just south of the apex of U.S. 41 and Dale Mabry Highway, workers put the finishing touches of fashionable earth-toned paint outside its replacement, a Walmart Supercenter with a line of shiny new carts and a parking lot of flawless blacktop.
The new store is set to open at 8 this morning following a half-hour ribbon cutting ceremony. Workers have spent the past few weeks setting up the new store, which boasts nearly 211,000 square feet. Open 24 hours seven days a week, it offers a full line of groceries, including a bakery, deli, meat and dairy, fresh produce, beer and wine. It also includes a lawn and garden center and an expanded electronics department.
The new store will employ 380 workers, including 240 new jobs created by the move. Sixty employees who have worked for the company at least 10 years will make the move, including five who worked at the original store since it opened in 1987.
The supercenter has been in the works since 2004 and required much haggling with state highway officials and CSX railroad officials about how future shoppers would get in and out. State officials would not allow a full median at Dale Mabry but did allow an intersection at U.S. 41 that crosses the train tracks. The store joins competitor SuperTarget, which opened at County Line Road and Dale Mabry in 2007.
The move raises the question of what will happen to Village Lakes, which was built in the early 1980s. It includes a Sweetbay supermarket, a Goodwill thrift shop, a Dollar Tree, a secondhand furniture store, two hair salons, a pizza parlor, deli, dental office, a music school, and a check cashing service.
Outparcels include an aging KFC restaurant, a bank and Benedetto's, an award-winning Italian restaurant.
Patrick Berman, who keeps tabs on shopping centers for the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm in Tampa, said older centers have advantages such as low rents and taxes. However, they often need sprucing up.
Also, few businesses large enough to fill a nearly 86,000 square foot vacancy are planning expansions during the economic downturn.
"There aren't too many big boxes looking for space now," Berman said.
Big Lots already has a store at U.S. 41 and State Road 54.
Also, Goodwill is building its own store on State Road 56, leaving its future at Village Lakes in question.
However, other shopping centers have survived. When Publix left Willow Bend Centre for a new location at Collier Commons, the old site sat for a couple of years but eventually was replaced by Lifestyles Family Fitness Center.
"We had one back home and it sat and sat," said Janet Holt, a snowbird from Ontario who winters at the Encore RV park across the street from the old Walmart. However, it eventually was filled by a tire store.
Customers had mixed feelings about the move.
"My daughter was so depressed looking at everything that was gone," said Dawn Hambrick, 41, of Lutz, who has shopped at the store about six years. She said she liked the store because it was small enough to find things quickly, and the cashiers knew her. She said some of the elderly workers had opted to retire rather than try to keep up at a larger store.
"I'll hit Target before I'll go to a Walmart Supercenter," she said.
A few minutes later, a woman asked a manager excitedly, "Tomorrow's when you're opening up over there? All right!"
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.